(A new book, called “In Fact” by Mark Henry has just been published. It is subtitled “An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100”. I wrote the following in April 2019 after listening to an episode of the Joe Duffy radio show where, as usual, there was much moaning and complaining about various aspects of Irish life. I’m downloading it now as I’m delighted to see that at least one person agrees with me.)
WE’VE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD
I walked entranced
through a land of Morn.
The sun with wondrous excess of light
shone down and glanced
over seas of corn
and lustrous gardens aleft and right.
Even in the clime
of resplendent Spain
Beams no such sun upon such a land
But it was the time,
it was the reign
of Cathal Mor of the Wine Red hand.
This is the first verse of a poem called “A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteen Century” written by James Clarence Mangan who died in 1819. In it he is describing a wonderful time in Irish history, during the reign of Cathal More, before the Normans came and took it all away. In reality such a time never existed, especially not in rain-sodden, perpetually cloudy Connaught. The poem is pure fantasy.
One of the more controversial things that Christ is reported to have said is that “you will always have the poor with you”. He was right in the sense that no matter how society prospers there will always be people at the bottom of the ladder. But poverty is relative. A poor person in Ireland would be considered well off in places like the Sudan or India. Poor people in Ireland often live in houses, drive cars and get welfare benefits like medical cards or university grants for their children. Compare this to the hand to mouth existence of Irish people in Famine times or to people living in Asian shanty towns where the majority are sleep under plastic, dress in rags and scavenge for food.
Absolute poverty existed in Ireland for a long time. It can be seen in stories of the Great Famine in the 1840’s or in Sean O’Casey’s plays set in the tenements of Dublin in the 1920’s. It is only in the last 60 years that the standard of living, for most people in Ireland, finally improved. While things are not perfect for some people in contemporary Ireland, for most people life has never been better.
Mankind aspires to perfection but it is an unrealistic expectation. Over the millennia great empires have arisen led by inspirational leaders. However, without exception, they have all ended in failure. Numerous systems of government have been tried out: dictatorship, benevolent despotism, monarchical, socialist, communist, democratic but none has been perfect. Hitler did not create his 1000-year Reich and Trump will not make America Great Again. And yet we expect our own politicians to create the perfect society where there will be no crime, no accidents, no medical misadventures, no injustices – a society where everybody gets what they want in terms of career opportunities, housing, health and all the good things of life. If history tells us anything it tells us that this utopia will never come about.
So, in what sense is life better today despite the constant whining on the Joe Duffy Show?
We live in an independent country and control our own destinies. We have voluntarily thrown in our lot with other members of the European Union to everyone’s mutual benefit. We live under the rule of law so we don’t fear State oppression and have civic guards to keep the peace. We enjoy the benefits of social democratic governments where, on the one hand we are free to use our creative talents to prosper in life, while on the other hand we have a State that can intervene to protect us if we fall on hard times due to unemployment or ill-health.
We live in a meritocracy where all are equal before the law and there is no discrimination in terms of class, social status, religion, gender or race. We have free, universal education with provision for those with special needs.
The health of the nation is catered for by preventative measures such as inoculations and screenings for potential diseases. Medical cards are provided for the needy and the elderly. Hospitalisation is a right not a privilege.
We enjoy the benefits of free speech and an unfettered mass media of communication. We have access to ease of travel with an ever-improving network of roads and public transport. There is healthy competition within the retail trade giving us the opportunity to purchase a wide range of consumer goods at reasonable prices.
The population of the Republic has grown rapidly in the last 60 years from less than 3 million to more than 5 million now. We have what is technically known as “full employment” – about 5 percent are out of work at any one time.
Compared to what life was like for the vast majority of Irish people up to the 1960’s we are living through a golden age. We assume it will always be like this but that is presumptuous. A lot of our wealth derives from multi-national companies who could close over-night if it suited them. Our farmers are very dependent on EU grants. The age profile of the country is changing due to better health and longevity so an increasing economic burden is being placed on a smaller work force.
This is not to deny that people have problems – social, economic or health-wise. But these are problems that can be dealt with given the resources of the state. So instead of moaning and griping about the current state of the country we should enjoy it while we can. Who knows how long this golden age will last?